Christians who wield these sixteen Bible-reading tools will better understand God's guidance for their lives, come to know him better, and grow to love him more.
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About the Author
Nigel Beynon is the student minister at St Helen's, Bishopsgate, in London, where he met and worked with Andrew Sach. Together they spent three years sharing the gospel with students before writing this book. Sach is currently studying theology at Oak Hill College in London in preparation for ordained ministry.
Andrew Sach is on the leadership team at St. Helen's Bishopsgate. He was previously a scientist before training at Oak Hill Theological College.
Read an Excerpt
What The Bible Is And How We Should Approach It
Before we jump in with our first tool, we're going to pause to examine the nature of the Bible — what kind of book it is and how it came about. That will lead us to the right way to approach it.
Imagine that a friend who isn't a Christian asks you, "Why do you bother reading the Bible? Isn't it out-of-date?" How would you respond?
We hope you would disagree. The Bible isn't like an old railroad timetable that has outlived its usefulness because things have changed. It is something that the eternal, almighty God has said, and therefore it is relevant and important for all times and cultures: "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever" (Isa. 40:8).
You can see where your friend is coming from, though. We would have to admit that parts of the Bible seem a bit dated. After all, it was written between 1,900 and 3,500 years ago; it describes the history and events of people we've never heard of and who often don't seem anything like us; it talks about what food you should and shouldn't eat, how you should sacrifice animals, and the type of material you should make your clothes from — none of which directly applies to us today. It isn't hard to see why someone might say it's out-of-date.
Our dilemma is caused by the dual nature of the Bible. It is a divine book, spoken by God, and therefore it is always true and relevant. And yet at the same time it is ahuman book, written by people a long time ago, and therefore it is in some senses dated. Let's think about each of these two natures of the Bible and how they should influence the way that we approach it.
A Divine Book
By calling it a "divine book," we mean simply that the Bible comes directly from God. Behind the various human authors, he is the ultimate author.
That's a huge claim to make, and lots of people would dispute it. But for Christians the issue is settled very easily: this is what Jesus himself believed about the Bible.
When asked by the Pharisees about divorce, Jesus said this: "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh'?" (Matt. 19:4–5).
Jesus quotes from Genesis 2:24, which, he says, was spoken by "he who created them." But when we turn to Genesis 2:24, we find that it is not a direct pronouncement from God (compare Gen. 2:18), but simply part of the narrative written by the human author of Genesis, probably Moses. However, Jesus sees this human sentence as something spoken by the Creator, God himself. We could multiply the examples showing that this is typical of Jesus' attitude to the Old Testament.
The apostle Paul delivers the same verdict: "All Scripture is breathed out by God ..." (2 Tim. 3:16). You can't speak without breathing — your lips move, but there will be no sound (try it!). Words travel on our breath. That explains what Paul is saying about the Old Testament ("Scripture"). It comes out of God's mouth. It is his word. This is sometimes called the doctrine of inspiration.
But what about the New Testament? That was written after Jesus returned to heaven, so presumably we can't know what he thought about it. Wrong. While Jesus was on earth he told his apostles that they were to be his witnesses and speak for him after he had left (see John 15:27; 17:20), and they went on to write the books and letters we call the New Testament. In effect, Jesus deliberately planned and commissioned the New Testament. To make sure they got it right, he didn't just leave the apostles to write it by themselves. He promised the help of his Spirit: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:12–14).
The other New Testament writers seem conscious of this. Peter, for instance, wrote: "This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandments of the Lord and Savior through your apostles" (2 Pet. 3:1–2).
Do you see what Peter is saying? It is Jesus' command, but from the apostles' lips. The apostles speak for God.
Much more could be said about the inspiration of the Bible, but we don't have room here. If you want to explore it further, we highly recommend chapter 2 of Bible Doctrine by Wayne Grudem.
Let's think about four implications that flow from the Bible being a divine book.
The Bible Is Alive, Not Dead History
If the Bible is God's Word, then, far from being out-of-date, it is a book that is alive and speaks to us today. As the book of Hebrews puts it: "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).
Imagine a lawyer who has to answer a tricky legal question. He knows that the answer lies in the dusty, leather-bound volumes in the law library, among all the previous cases and legal precedents. However, reading those books is rather boring and takes a long time. It's much easier to phone up a fellow lawyer who knows more than he does. His friend can tell him the answer right away; it's quick and easy.
Of course, our lawyer friend still thinks highly of the books in the law library. They are the final authority on what is right and wrong. But he reads them only when he really has to or when he needs to check that his friend's answer is right. Otherwise, it's much easier to stick with the immediate answer he gets over the phone.
That can sum up how many of us treat the Bible. We have lots of questions we want God to answer, but we think of the Bible as old and boring. It's much easier to try to get answers more directly. We either ask God to tell us answers in some way that doesn't involve the Bible, or we ask Christian friends for their opinion. We still think the Bible is very important, though. Like the law library, it is our final authority; it decides what is right and wrong. But we go there only as a last resort, to check on things we've heard from elsewhere.
From what we've said about the Bible, we hope you can see that that is a huge misunderstanding! The Bible isn't like a dead law book, true but boring. It is God's Word. It is what God is saying today. It is living and active. It is like speaking to a friend on the phone, only the friend is God himself.
It would be good to keep this in mind every time we sit down and open the Bible. Banish any thoughts of a boring library, and think instead of picking up the phone and discovering your Creator on the other end of the line. God is speaking. That is really what is happening as we read the Bible.
The Bible Is True and Doesn't Make Mistakes
One of the wonderful things about God is that he doesn't lie (Titus 1:2). He doesn't make mistakes either, because he knows everything that there is to know. If the Bible is God's Word, then it follows that the Bible doesn't lie or make mistakes. No wonder that Jesus can say to God his Father: "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth" (John 17:17).
We can trust everything that the Bible says. It will never mislead us — so long as we understand it correctly.
Yes, we know that the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo because its leaders were convinced from the Bible that the sun orbited the earth: "The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises" (Eccles. 1:5). "Ha!" says the skeptic. "How hopelessly naive of the prescientific Bible writers, who knew nothing of cosmology! The Bible must be riddled with mistakes like that." But of course we still speak of "sunrise" in our own day. That's what it looks like from the standpoint of someone on earth. It's not saying anything about cosmology. It's not a mistake.
The Word of God is the surest foundation that you can build your life on.
We Can Understand the Word of God Only by the Spirit of God
Consider these verses:
But, as it is written,
"What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him —"
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Cor. 2:9–12)
Paul's point is clear: we need God's Spirit to understand God's Word. Given that it was the Spirit who inspired it in the first place, that comes as no surprise. There's another implication, though:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:14)
Someone who isn't a Christian (i.e. the "natural person") won't be able fully to understand the Bible, no matter how many qualifications or degrees in theology he or she may have. We should be wary of the "expert" on television or the professor who's written the latest controversial book about Christianity. It's easy to bow to what seems to be impressive knowledge, but if they don't have the Spirit of God working in them, then they have no hope of grasping the Bible's message.
On the other hand, all Christians can understand the Bible for themselves, since all Christians have the Spirit. The role of our pastor or minister is not to tell us private secrets to which they alone have access, but to point us to the verses in front of us so that we see for ourselves what the Bible is saying. This is very liberating and exciting — all God's children have access to God's truth.
Yet we need continually to express our dependence on God for a right understanding of him and his ways. He is the one who grants insight (2 Tim. 2:7; Phil. 3:15). And so we must pray. Pray before you open the Bible. Pray when you get stuck and don't understand. Pray again when you do understand it — say thank you! Pray, pray, pray!
It is vital that we remember this. In the rest of this book we are going to concentrate on what we might call "our part" in understanding the Bible, as opposed to "God's part" of enabling us to understand. However, we would hate for you to get the impression that just because we spend most time on "our part," we think God's part isn't very important. Not at all! Better than any of the tools that we will learn about is the privilege of prayer. If the Bible is God speaking to us down the telephone, then prayer is our way of speaking back: "I don't get it. Please help me see what you mean"; "I'm struggling to accept what you're saying, Father. Please help me to trust you"; "This is amazing, Lord. I praise you for what you are showing me."
What God Says Goes
The fourth implication of the Bible's being God's Word comes from remembering who God is. He is the supreme Lord and King of the universe. He is the One in charge. Given that, it should be obvious that what he says goes.
This is sometimes called the authority of the Bible. It carries the same authority as the God who speaks it and so has the right to say what is true and to demand obedience. As Christians we want to live with God in charge of us, and in practice that means living in submission to the words of Scripture. Listening to Jesus' voice and following him in all that he says is a matter of instinct: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27).
Yet, even with God's Spirit working in us, we still have a sinful nature, and that part of us doesn't want to listen to God or obey him (Gal. 5:17). The simple fact that the New Testament letters contain so many rebukes and commands about what we should and shouldn't do is ample testimony to the fact that living with God in charge doesn't come easily to us.
Earlier we quoted part of a statement by Paul about the Bible being God- breathed. Here it is in full:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Tim. 3:16)
Paul expects the Bible to tell us off when we are getting things wrong and to correct us when we are veering off course. As we read the Bible, we should expect to find God saying things we don't like or find difficult. We should expect to be rebuked and corrected.
When that happens, it is really important that we accept what God says. When some people read what the Bible teaches about predestination or homosexuality or wives submitting to their husbands (to pick three controversial examples), they respond by saying, "I can't accept that" or "Surely we must interpret this in a different way." Now, of course, it's very important to ask whether the Bible really does say what we think it does — that is what this book is going to help us with. But once we are clear about what the Bible says, the question is whether we will accept what it says.
Part of us does want to hear and follow what God says, but part of us doesn't. We should harbor a little self-suspicion: just because we don't like what we are reading doesn't mean we've got it wrong; in fact it might very well mean we've got it right!
A Human Book
Having thought about the Bible as a divine book, let's turn now to the other side of the coin — that it is also a human book.
We hardly need to prove that the Bible is a human book. That's obvious as soon as we start to read it. For example, Philippians 1:1 tells us that this part of the Bible was written by a man called Paul; from the way he writes, it is clearly what we would call a letter; it is addressed to Christians in a place called Philippi. It is clearly a "human" document.
Often, the human authors give us some personal information about themselves and their involvement with what they are writing:
And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king's business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it. (Dan. 8:27)
He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth — that you also may believe. (John 19:35)
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. (Eccles. 1:1)
There is a right sense to saying the Bible is "dated": not that it is no longer relevant, but that it was written a long time ago. This is sometimes called historical particularity — the Bible is written by particular people, at a particular time, in a particular place, for a particular reason. Their humanity comes through. Their particular circumstances come through. That's why you find verses in the Bible like this: "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments" (2 Tim. 4:13). If you go hunting in this verse for God's special message for you, you'll be barking up the wrong tree. It is particular to the human writer Paul, who was beginning to get cold as winter approached and needed his coat!
So then, the Bible is a human document. That doesn't overturn what we said earlier about God speaking to us in the Bible; that is all still true. But the way God speaks to us is through human authors. They weren't mindless robots, writing as God dictated from above. Rather, God worked through them as people, preserving their personality, literary style, and culture, yet at the same time guiding them by his Spirit so that they always wrote his eternal truth.
This all means that we have some work to do. We must work at understanding the different writers correctly, exploring their situations, their purpose in writing, and how they have expressed themselves. As we do that, we will come to know God's voice in our lives. That is what the following tools are going to help us do.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dig Deeper"
Copyright © 2010 Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. What the Bible Is and How We Should Approach It,
2. The Author's Purpose Tool,
3. The Context Tool,
4. The Structure Tool,
5. The Linking Words Tool,
6. The Parallels Tool,
7. The Narrator's Comment Tool,
8. The Vocabulary Tool,
9. The Translations Tool,
10. The Tone and Feel Tool,
11. The Repetition Tool,
12. The Quotation/Allusion Tool,
13. The Genre Tool,
14. The Copycat Tool,
15. The Bible Time Line Tool,
16. The "Who Am I?" Tool,
17. The "So What?" Tool,
Conclusion: Pulling It All Together,
Appendix: It Really Works!,
What People are Saying About This
"Nigel and Andrew have written a great work on knowing God better, learning his will for your life, and reading your Bible. I like it. In fact, I think we'll start using it at our church."
Mark Dever, Senior Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC; President, 9Marks
"At last the book we have been waiting for, a modest-sized volume that lays out the cardinal principles of biblical exposition in clear, accessible, winsome language. I keep a stash of Dig Deeper in my office for gifts to aspiring preachers as well as to refresh my own preaching. A quickening read for all expositors and teachers of the Word!"
R. Kent Hughes, Senior Pastor Emeritus, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois
"As a minister to college students, I am constantly on the lookout for resources for thoughtful, bright, and passionate young people who are hungry to know the Word of God and hungry to teach it to others. Finding a book that is both deep and yet approachable is not always that easy, but I have found Nigel Beynon's and Andrew Sach's book to be both. This is a great hermeneutics 101 text, but it is moreit also consistently drives home the authority of the truth once one has found it in Scripture. So, this book is deep, approachable, and pastoral. That is a recipe that teaches the principles of interpretation and also fans the flames of zeal for God's Word. I would gladly put it in the hands of one of my students."
Jay S. Thomas, Lead Pastor, Chapel Hill Bible Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina